The members of the “Silk Stocking Brigade,” also known as the 7th Regiment of the New York State Militia, helped control New York’s conflagrations - literal and metaphorical. The 7th was made up of local men who mostly dealt with local problems.
In 1861, they briefly went national. That April, the flag from Fort Sumter was unfurled over the new sculpture of George Washington at Union Square, whipping a crowd of 100,000 into a patriotic frenzy. Responding to President Lincoln’s urgent request, New York’s governor sent a thousand men of the 7th Regiment off to defend the nation’s capital. By May 31st, thousands of volunteers had swelled the ranks of the Union Army, and the 7th Regiment returned to guard New York.
But the Civil War - bloody and brutal- dragged on. In early July 1863, at Gettysburg, 93,000 Union soldiers took the field. Over 20,000 were killed, wounded, captured, or missing. And that was a Union victory.
With reports of the massive losses at Gettysburg still filling the newspapers, the draft board convened in New York to draw the names of several thousand men for the nation’s first ever mandatory military service. If your number was drawn, though, you could pay $300 to send a substitute.
But for a manual laborer in New York, $300 was a whole year’s salary. On July 13th, a mob of laborers attacked the draft office. Before long, the mob turned racist. Many blamed blacks for “causing” the war - and for competing with whites for low-paying jobs. Over the next few days, the violence escalated. The New York Times defended its headquarters with Gatling guns.
The 7th Regiment and other troops were hastily recalled from chasing Confederates at Gettysburg to chasing rioters in New York. When they restored order after 4 days of mob violence, 50 buildings had been torched. At least 105 people had died. The New York Draft Riots of 1863 remain the largest incident of civil disorder in the history of the United States.
When Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, over 3 million men had fought in the Civil War. Over 600,000 of them had died: a whole generation of young men. Of those, about 50,000 were New Yorkers.
In 1867, two years after the war ended, the 7th Regiment requested permission to erect a memorial in Central Park to its 58 dead. Although he looks ordinary, this figure is the first of his kind: a war memorial that represents not a military leader, but a citizen-soldier. Towns across the United States commissioned mass-produced variations on the 7th Regiment Memorial. Not every town could boast a Civil War general, but every town had lost fathers, husbands, and sons.